Journalistic Integrity or Just Plain Dumb?

If the Wuhan lab-leak hypothesis is true, expect a political earthquake

This incredible article is by Thomas Frank, a respected journalist and author (What’s the Matter With Kansas? – an exercise in urban political myopia) who is a well-educated and well-read member of the liberal urban media. Here’s an excerpt of his political touchstones:

Like everyone else I know, I spent the pandemic doing as I was told. A few months ago I even tried to talk a Fox News viewer out of believing in the lab-leak theory of Covid’s origins. The reason I did that is because the newspapers I read and the TV shows I watched had assured me on many occasions that the lab-leak theory wasn’t true, that it was a racist conspiracy theory, that only deluded Trumpists believed it, that it got infinite pants-on-fire ratings from the fact-checkers, and because (despite all my cynicism) I am the sort who has always trusted the mainstream news media.

[Ah, yes, it’s Trump’s fault. LOL.]

If an individual whose entire career and livelihood is wrapped up in ‘getting it right’ is so easily misled by our dominant media sources, what hope is there for the rest of us who have better things to do? Now he’s wondering if he’s gotten it all wrong and the larger consequences.

This is the problem with the urban corporate media that started to seriously degenerate after the 2000 election. But we have also learned how it started long before, as alternative media such as cable news, Talk Radio, and the Internet have presented an existential financial challenge for traditional media outlets, especially print newspapers and broadcast news.

Mr. Frank and his colleagues in corporate media (NYT, WaPo, LAT, Fox) need to undergo a serious bit of soul searching to discover if they have a role as the Fourth Estate in our information economy, or if they should just go pursue a career in real estate somewhere. Journalists today have to understand that nobody is going to hero worship them as the modern-day Woodward and Bernstein. Honest journalism and reputational capital is it’s own reward and can actually be lucrative on platforms like SubStack.

So here is what Frank has discovered:

  •  Lab leaks happen. They aren’t the result of conspiracies: “a lab accident is an accident,” as Nathan Robinson points out; they happen all the time, in this country and in others, and people die from them.
  •  There is evidence that the lab in question, which studies bat coronaviruses, may have been conducting what is called “gain of function” research, a dangerous innovation in which diseases are deliberately made more virulent. By the way, right-wingers didn’t dream up “gain of function”: all the cool virologists have been doing it (in this country and in others) even as the squares have been warning against it for years.
  •  There are strong hints that some of the bat-virus research at the Wuhan lab was funded in part by the American national-medical establishment — which is to say, the lab-leak hypothesis doesn’t implicate China alone.
  •  There seem to have been astonishing conflicts of interest among the people assigned to get to the bottom of it all, and (as we know from Enron and the housing bubble) conflicts of interest are always what trip up the well-credentialed professionals whom liberals insist we must all heed, honor, and obey.
  •  The news media, in its zealous policing of the boundaries of the permissible, insisted that Russiagate was ever so true but that the lab-leak hypothesis was false false false, and woe unto anyone who dared disagree. Reporters gulped down whatever line was most flattering to the experts they were quoting and then insisted that it was 100% right and absolutely incontrovertible — that anything else was only unhinged Trumpist folly, that democracy dies when unbelievers get to speak, and so on.
  •  The social media monopolies actually censored posts about the lab-leak hypothesis. Of course they did! Because we’re at war with misinformation, you know, and people need to be brought back to the true and correct faith — as agreed upon by experts.

With this we get Mr. Frank’s revelation:

If it does indeed turn out that the lab-leak hypothesis is the right explanation for how it began — that the common people of the world have been forced into a real-life lab experiment, at tremendous cost — there is a moral earthquake on the way.

Because if the hypothesis is right, it will soon start to dawn on people that our mistake was not insufficient reverence for scientists, or inadequate respect for expertise, or not enough censorship on Facebook. It was a failure to think critically about all of the above, to understand that there is no such thing as absolute expertise. 

Yeah, no kidding. And that’s a bad thing? It’s doubly ironic that most of the voices haranguing us to “follow the science” were really constraining true science. Critical thinking is merely what real scientists have been telling us all along, as opposed to those succumbing to “political” science. There are no absolutes in science, only skepticism and hypothesis testing – this applies to the pandemic as well as climate change and systemic racism and Modern Monetary Theory. And mea culpas won’t save journalists from the anvils of “I told you so’s” that will rain down upon their heads.

Viral (or Vile) Media

I start my morning reviewing the headlines of the major news media on RealClearPolitics to see if there is anything worth reading. Of course, RCP now juxtaposes the ying with the yang on every issue in order to drive engagement and traffic. Today I came across these two articles and was struck on how they captured the manufactured controversy over ending or maintaining virus lockdowns. Give them a read and see if you can perceive the difference.

How to reopen the economy with a reality-based approach

https://www.washingtonexaminer.com/opinion/how-to-reopen-the-economy-with-a-reality-based-approach

The first, published in the esteemed (sic) NYT, is written by a professor of pediatrics. I read it through, hoping to gain some insights. Sadly, incredibly obtuse, he makes assertions about epidemiology and public opinion and dismisses experts from the fields of psychiatry, politics, economics, and social behavior with a fairly baseless argument that only the medical experts know. We must follow their advice without question (okay, let’s ignore the fact that every medical projection has been off by a country mile). Then he adds that public opinion agrees. Okay, a public survey poll is an obvious contradiction of expertise: if 60% of the lemmings say we need to go over the cliff, the other 40% better follow?

He tried to obscure this error with a survey of economists. As a trained economist I happen to know the profession is one of the most risk-averse in academia (note the quoted economist who doesn’t want to be a restaurant guinea pig). Why? Because we are painfully aware of how much we don’t know (and make sure to maintain plausible deniability for those bad forecasts – Paul Krugman take note). There is no actionable intelligence in this opinion piece, as that’s what it is, unqualified opinion.

The second piece is published by the less esteemed (?) Washington Examiner (hmm, presenting a perfect opportunity to shoot the messenger and kill the message?), written by an MD and JD trained in economics. This writer offers a nuanced strategy with actionable intelligence for opening up parts of society while maintaining certain social behavior protocols to manage the risks. Okay, not bad.

My advice: trash the NYT piece and don’t take the WE piece as gospel, as that is not how it is intended, but give it careful consideration. There’s no equivalence here. Our media seems committed to misguiding at least half the country’s citizens. Ugh!

Social Behavior and the Coronavirus Pandemic

If you’re like me and follow the mainstream as well as social media, you’ve likely been inundated with information about the coronavirus pandemic, with many different data interpretations and conflicting claims based on these interpretations. The simple graphic below, called “flattening the curve,” seems to be the dominant visual for explaining the current public healthcare issues and provides a good starting point.

Flattening the curve.

The graph was created by disease specialists at the CDC and has been spread widely by medical professionals, government officials, and non-government agencies. It visually represents the logic behind the political response to the crisis and the strategy to slow the spread of the virus. This is critical to managing the capacity limitations of healthcare resources like hospitals, drug therapies, and healthcare personnel. However, it is a theoretical model based on exponential pandemic dynamics; it is not a graph of actual empirical data. It is meant to educate, not report.

Unfortunately, the graph has been adopted by public media as a projection of “likely” real-time scenarios under various assumptions, focusing completely on the rose-colored part of the graph. According to this worst-case scenario, without strict adherence to isolation protocols the coronavirus is projected to spread exponentially through the population, placing an impossible burden on healthcare resources. The problem is that the empirical data so far does not seem to be supporting this worst-case scenario.

Let’s not get derailed here: the virus outbreak is a serious public health threat and a deadly threat to the elderly and immune-compromised. Our policies should foremost target the security of these groups. In this respect, the model is valuable and instructive, but not so much for actual health outcomes to the majority of the population. From the macro point of view, we have little idea how many of those people infected will require medical intervention and how extensive that intervention might be. In other words, infection rates may not impact health care capacity as depicted here. We also have little feel for how high or low that spike might be, or the magnitude of the y-axis – is it thousands, millions, or billions? 20%, 50% or 90%? Many media interpretations of existing data choose a scale that looks like we’re shooting up to the top of that rosy peak when we are really barely past the initial stage way, way down near the floor of the x-axis (see next graph). The projections repeatedly fail to project for interventions and behavior changes.

Where are we?

Also, as we discover more and more people have contracted the virus yet show no serious symptoms, we are missing any projection of herd immunity. Immunity gradually reduces the ability of the virus to find new hosts within the existing population so it gradually dies out.

What is valuable about the meme is the implication for how the public should adapt social behavior now to reduce the transmission rate of the contagion. Physical or social distancing is at this time imperative. Essentially this is less about biology and more about social behavior informed by biology. It strikes me that most of our media information is overly focused on very uncertain medical data given credibility by concerned medical experts. The problem is that the experts are shrouded in uncertainty and thus must err on the side of extreme caution. In hindsight most of this speculation will likely turn out to be fictional. But the effect will be real, and this takes us back to social behavior.

Some reports opine that this coronavirus is just a bad flu. If one is looking at medical data, I would tend to agree. But looking at social behavior, I would obviously disagree. What is driving social behavior, which will be measured in political policies and economic results, relates to the nature of this pandemic, not the pathogen itself. The coronavirus strikes at the heart of our instinctual behavior in the face of existential threats.

The real problem we face is that 1) the threat is invisible, 2) seems to be highly transmissible and somewhat random, 3) offers no preventive therapy (vaccine) or 4) sure treatment options or cures. Thus, 5) we feel little sense of control over what might be a serious existential threat. What this combination of characteristics does is incite a strong psychological reaction to uncertainty, risk, and potential loss, leading to exaggerated reactions to very low probabilities.

We know from behavioral science that the survival instinct causes behavior to respond to these contextual parameters. Humans, like all sentient beings, are risk and loss averse. Loss pertains to the nature of the threat, such as will I lose my job, or my savings and pension, or the ultimate existential threat: will I get sick and die? Risk is a probability function of the uncertainty of that loss. As the threat level rises (reported death counts and mortality rates) people become more fearful. Then, as uncertainty blankets us like a fog, the anxiety level rises. This survival response is perfectly rational for any organism trying to stay alive.

The important thing to note is that when the probability of loss increases and the consequence becomes more serious, people tend to become risk-seeking. In other words, faced with a likely existential threat, people take more behavioral risks than would be rational in the absence of that threat. We see this in those apocalyptic movies, when widespread hysteria and panic leads to chaos and deadly conflict, where more people die from the chaos than from the threat.

Individual behavior is compounded by irrational social behavior. An example is the panic buying of paper products, where some people, pressed to explain their behavior, have only offered the justification that everybody else was hoarding paper, so they were too. This suggests that what may not be categorically much different than a bad flu medically has the potential to turn into a global social and economic crisis.

So why is this reaction to coronavirus different than the Asian bird flu, Ebola, SARS, MERS or H1N1? The coronavirus seems to have a much higher and faster transmission rate than these previous pathogens and thus it has spread world-wide much faster. This is likely because it is highly asymptomatic while it is contagious and spreading. It also may be far more benign. But we don’t know why it is asymptomatic in some people and severely life-threatening for others. This uncertainty and randomness heighten our fear of the threat.  

There is something else going on with the present pandemic that is aggravating the crisis. Because the virus has easily spread rather quickly, our global information media has gone into overdrive, especially social media. We know that social media is mostly driven by emotional reactions to uncertain facts, what we now call fake news. The sad reality is that the traditional print and broadcast media have also had to succumb to sensationalism and emotions in order to stay in business. Remember the editor’s dictum: If it bleeds, it leads. This presents the danger of reporting one random healthy young person who dies of COVID-19 complications instead of the thousands of others who contract the virus and seem unaffected. Our media, willingly or unwillingly, by focusing on infection and death counts taken out of context may be contributing to the social psychological effects driving this pandemic crisis. Worst-case scenarios painted by the medical experts and spread by the media are doing the same.

I suspect officials may sincerely believe projecting the worst-case scenario is necessary to “scare people straight” to get them to change behavior. But social behavior indicates that fear can become more viral than the virus, increasing the threats to social stability, safety, and security.

If one doubts this, imagine what would happen if a vaccine or cure were discovered tomorrow. Most of the world would return to normal the next day, not because the pathogen was eradicated any more than the seasonal flu, but because our fear would disappear.